I strongly believe that a good education is the key to address some of the challenges the African continent is facing today. Ever since graduating with my Master’s of Leadership in Kenya, a strong desire has gripped me to empower fellow Africans. After graduating with a second Master in Social Work here in Canada, I could not contain my excitement to pursue my dream of equipping and empowering fellow Africans. Social work is still new in many African countries and Burundi in particular. There are still few universities on the African continent that offer post graduate studies in Social Work making it hard for universities to secure qualified social work teachers. With all the skills I had acquired, I knew it was time to travel back to equip my people.
The journey to fulfil my dream led me to volunteer at the school of social work at Hope Africa University in Bujumbura, Burundi. As I boarded my plane on that Thursday March 12, 2015, I shed tears of joy as I anxiously looked forward to fulfilling one of my childhood dreams – to empower my people with quality education. The joy of returning to equip my fellow Africans surpassed any other emotions and tiredness after hours in the air.
I landed in Bujumbura on Friday, March 13 in the evening. As I arrived at the Hope Africa University campus, I felt so many positive emotions and anticipation to see family, friends and the place that I called home for four years. It also reminded me of the many times I was kicked out of class due to lack of school fees, and of the times that I struggled to raise enough funds, thinking that I would never be able to complete my social work undergraduate degree. Seeing the dormitory and touching its walls brought so many memories: the place that I desperately thought my dream for a university education would never become true, a place that later believed in me and gave me a chance to complete my first degree through an anonymous sponsor, the place that I spent hours and hours studying with candles, the place where I loved to interpret in chapels and connect with diverse people.
I was shocked to notice the positive changes that had occurred since I left in 2008. The school had erected new buildings and had many more students. As I sat in my room in the new hospitality house beside the library, hope flooded my heart. This was the place where I felt all my dreams for a better life, education, health, etc., were impossible and unattainable. Yet this was also the place where, through the love of Bob and Laurie, the connection to immigrate to Canada started. This time, I felt I was a different Oliver who, through the support of many, had overcome what seemed to be impossible. I was not the Oliver who had struggled to pay school fees but who had come all the way from Canada to volunteer his time, money and skills to empower others. At times, I was shocked and amazed at all the changes that had occurred in my own life: from a beggar in the Congo during the war, to a hopeless and helpless refugee in Nyarugusu, Nairobi and Burundi, to an immigrant in Canada and now a visiting volunteer lecturer – all this because so many people gave their time and finances to support me. The visit reminded me how much our lives are not determined by circumstances but by how we respond to them.
Saturday March 14 and Sunday March 15 were times for refreshing. During the church service at Ngagara Free Methodist Church, I was thrilled to see that the singing group “Neno La Uvima” I had founded with 11 others had now grown to over 50 members. Almost all were new faces.
I woke on Monday morning with lots of anticipation: I was to attend the first ever International Social Work Conference in Bujumbura, Burundi, and participate in the official launching of the Burundian Social Workers’ Association. The conference featured how social work and community development can be an effective tool to foster hope and sustainable change in post-conflict societies. As mentioned above, although social work is still new in many parts of Africa, everyone acknowledges the significant role it can play in addressing issues faced in post conflict societies in the African Great Lakes region (DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, among others).
Hope Africa University is the first and only school in Burundi that offers social work education and also welcomes a high number of students from neighbouring DR Congo, Rwanda, and many other countries. Throughout the conference, it became clear that the lack of qualified social work teachers with a strong understanding of African realities hinders the quality of education offered to students. The conference emphasized that the development of social work in Africa and Burundi in particular must contextualize current frameworks to respond to African cultural realities.
On Thursday evening, I started teaching an intensive course on Social Problems Affecting Youth in Africa. I was thrilled by students’ eagerness and curiosity to learn. We together explored various social work practices or interventions with youth and specific challenges to intervene on behalf of youth in post-conflict societies. As the course went on, I came to realize how much social workers must first be empowered themselves in order to empower other people. I was encouraged to hear students express how much the course had influenced their social work understanding and practice. The course challenged many to think about alternative ways to address issues affecting youth in post-conflict societies. Others had questions about specific cases, and a few students received individual counselling sessions. Finally, all the students were inspired to consider volunteering as a way to give back to their communities.
Talking with students and staff, I was heartbroken to hear that many students still struggle to raise funds for their school, yet was encouraged that I could go and impact students’ learning. Going back has ignited my passion to see more people gain a university education, as this truly is the key to empowering individuals, communities and nations in Africa.
I now invite you to think about your own gifts and skills. How might you lend these to your own community, or a community abroad? I have many plans in mind as I look forward to returning next year. Please stay tuned for my upcoming book and for more opportunities to partner with me in my next volunteer teaching visit.
My students graciously treated me to lunch on the beach after the final exam